Stalker 2 plays exactly how Stalker should play!

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Almost a year after our last disappointing gameplay review of Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl, a lot has changed. Fortunately, mostly for the better

Stalker 2begins, appropriately enough, with a speeding truck on a highway at night. But unlike Strelok almost 20 years ago in the first installment calledStalker: Shadow of Chernobylthe new main character Skif remains in control. He has to place a transmitter on three anomalies in the nocturnal zone of contaminated Chernobyl.

Why? Why? Why?I don’t want to give that away for spoiler reasons, because today it’s all about the gameplay of Stalker 2: Heart of Chornobyl. I’m visiting the developers as part of the Summer Game Fest 2024 in Los Angeles. The trade fair day is almost over, the clock shows 7:30 p.m. LA time, but half an hour of Stalker simply has to be included

As I said, I’m playing the start of the campaign. And it starts atmospherically in pitch darkness. Skif is standing alone in the tall grass, has to find these three anomalies somehow and everything else … well, everything else is up to me.

Technically much rounder

Colleague Natalie was already amazed by point number one when she first played the game in August 2023:Stalker 2 looks good enough to eat.The zone at night, for example, is illuminated by flashing anomalies in the distance. The textures are also crisp, and I can literally scrape the rust off the weapon models with my fingernail.

When I pressLlike lamp, Skif physically turns on his headlamp correctly – so the cone of light doesn’t magically appear from my stomach. And fortunately, the version now runstechnically much smoother than it did ten months ago: During my half-hour session, there was only one bug. The mouse suddenly stopped working properly, a restart fixed the problem

Aside from that, the game boasts a sensational level of detail. But even more impressive than how it looks is how Stalker 2 feels.

(The Chernobyl zone just looks unbelievably good.)
(The Chernobyl zone just looks unbelievably good.)

Stalker remains a stalker

Anyone who has played the old Stalker knows how difficult it is to describe the magic of this game apart from all the rough edges. Millions of little cogs – from the background noises to the peeling textures and the characters’ Eastern Bloc punk design – combine to create a very distinctive atmosphere

And Stalker 2 captures it again after all these years. Skif doesn’t move like an action hero, but heaves his soldier’s body through the tall grass of the zone. The Kalashnikov at the ready wobbles as he walks, I hear nothing but my own Geiger counter warning of radioactive radiation as I stalk ahead

From the very first second of the game, Stalker lets me explore the surroundings, even if the actual open world only opens up later. Nevertheless: This world has no respect for me,in some weathered wooden shacks I find valuable medkits, in others just a piece of salami– or nothing at all.

And sometimes a miserable mutant who can make himself invisible in the pale night light jumps out at me. At the stand, I almost clear the table in fright, screaming into the night like a panicked NPC. And I waste a lot more bullets because the mutant is lying dead in the grass. But in Stalker 2 there are no kill markers like in Call of Duty and co.

(The gunfights are challenging because we have to do without many comfort features from other shooters.)
(The gunfights are challenging because we have to do without many comfort features from other shooters.)

Oldschool in the best sense

I also have to do the navigation myself. Skif pulls his data tablet out of his rucksack and, as before, all I see are a few question marks with clues found on the overview map. At least I can track certain destinations and then see them displayed in the live compass at the top of the screen.But Stalker 2 still feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

This also applies to shooting. Last year, Natalie’s biggest criticism was the gunplay, but a lot seems to have changed in the meantime. Yes, my Kalschnikow breaks out faster than in CoD and other mainstream shooters, but if I actively compensate for the recoil, the gun stabilizes. At least halfway

This creates a niceboom!feeling And Natalie already praised this last year: just like before, headshots in Stalker are an absolute savior. Because if you miss the head, you burn an incredible amount of ammunition. I only fought three bandits in the demo, but had to reload three times – and I haven’t just been playing shooters since yesterday

Once a grenade shreds me, because in Stalker 2 – what a surprise – there are of course no grenade markers.

Oldschool in the best sense

I also have to do the navigation myself. Skif pulls his data tablet out of his rucksack and, just like before, all I see are a few question marks with clues on the overview map. At least I can track certain destinations and then see them displayed in the live compass at the top of the screen.But Stalker 2 still feels old-fashioned in the best sense of the word.

This also applies to shooting. Last year, Natalie’s biggest criticism was the gunplay, but a lot seems to have changed in the meantime. Yes, my Kalschnikow breaks out faster than in CoD and other mainstream shooters, but if I actively compensate for the recoil, the gun stabilizes. At least halfway

This creates a niceboom!feeling And Natalie already praised this last year: just like before, headshots in Stalker are an absolute savior. Because if you miss the head, you burn an incredible amount of ammunition. I only fought three bandits in the demo, but had to reload three times – and I haven’t just been playing shooters since yesterday

Once a grenade shreds me, because in Stalker 2 – what a surprise – there are of course no grenade markers.

(Murderous mutants can quickly finish us off again if we're not careful (or shout too much instead of shooting)
(Murderous mutants can quickly finish us off again if we’re not careful (or shout too much instead of shooting)

Open questions and construction sites

Of course, half an hour is not enough to get a comprehensive impression of an open-world shooter. I found all three anomalies during the playtime and completed the demo, but I couldn’t see anything of the open world yet

There are still a few rough edges Even with a mouse and keyboard, the controls are very overloaded in places I play the piano laboriously when managing the inventory and occasionally have to press three buttons at the same time to grab a transmitter from my backpack, for example

But overall, it’s already much, much smoother than a few months ago. Now the devs just have to push the game onto the runway – I’m looking forward to it!

Editor’s verdict

The Stalker universe died far too soon – at least that’s what I thought all these years, when successors in spirit like the Metro franchise proved how unique Eastern European end-time punk can feel. So unique, in fact, that there isn’t even a proper name for games and scenarios of this kind yet.

All the better that Stalker 2 is now rising to a level where I say: Yep, this could be something! In my short gameplay demo, the game hits all the right notes, the weapons feel massive and chunky, maneuvering in the zone is extremely dangerous, the enemies are deadly – and Skif is completely on his own.

Now all that remains is to hope that this atmosphere and fascination carries over into the open world, because I’m so excited to see what Stalker 2 does with its factions and shady characters.